Friday 29 December 2023

2023 in Review: Looking Back

Today marks the end of my 2023 in Review series of posts. As a light recap, I kicked this off on Monday by revealing my Top 10 video games for 2023. This was followed by my Top 10 TV shows on Tuesday. On Wednesday, I highlighted my favorite songs while yesterday, I went over my Top 10 movies for the year. To wrap things up, we'll be examining the year as a whole by taking a look back at some of the things and events that helped define 2023.

2023 like most years was filled with a lot of heated debates and controversy centered around the ongoing culture war. There were calls for boycotts of brands like Bud Light and Target by their more conservative customers, both of which would cost their respective parent companies millions of dollars. Even the video game Hogwarts Legacy wasn't exempted due to its loose ties to J.K. Rowling. But in the case of the latter, it was clear that all those calling for the game to be boycotted were simply in the vocal minority, as it would go on to become the highest-selling game for 2023.

On the other side of the pond, the coronation of King Charles III was held in May, after he'd ascended the throne in the wake of Queen Elizabeth II's passing last year. There were many guests in attendance but notably missing was Meghan Markle whose claims of systematic racism in the Royal Family have been met with some major backlash. Her husband, Prince Harry, was of course there to honor his father, but with the way he was given very minimal coverage or exposure during the ceremony, you could tell that public opinion for the couple remains very low.

General elections were held over here in Nigeria back in February. And for the first time in a long time, we had what appeared to be three strong candidates as opposed to two, as Peter Obi stepped up to the plate to challenge both Bola Tinubu and Atiku Abubakar. And even though I didn't once again have any particular horse in the race, I still followed proceedings with mild curiosity. It of course didn't take very long into the election before reports of rigging started to run rampant. Bola Tinubu would eventually go on to win the quote, unquote, popular vote, a result anyone should have seen coming a mile away, given how things operate in the country.

As far as pop icons go, they don't really get much bigger than Taylor Swift. And 2023 was the year that heralded the start of The Eras Tour, a sprawling three-plus-hour show spanning songs from her entire back catalog. The shows would prove so popular during the year that it became the highest-grossing tour of all time, surpassing over $1 billion in ticket sales. She would even extend her dominance into theaters with a concert film, itself the highest-grossing film of its kind. All that would contribute to her being named Time Magazine's Person of the Year a second time.

2023 will probably be remembered as the year that Disney finally imploded after taking some very massive box office Ls. It all started with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania in February, but the list quickly grew to include The Little Mermaid, Elemental, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, Haunted Mansion, The Marvels, and Wish. It is clear that a sizable majority of the general public has completely soured on the company as a brand, as it continues to place itself at the forefront of hot-button issues rather than focusing on delivering entertainment value. It remains to be seen what the future holds for the company, but at least its leadership has finally been forced to acknowledge the problem, so good on everyone who voted with their wallets.

Reeling things back home now, 2023 went by in what I can only describe as one helluva flash. It even feels odd writing this wrap-up post when I still vividly remember working on the one for last year. Where did all that time go, you ask? Beats me, to be honest, but the only way to keep track of the passage of time sometimes is by taking a moment to acknowledge milestones. This is primarily why I feel the need to keep doing this yearly series, to take stock of how I spent the year.

So in terms of actual milestones crossed during the year in question, there isn't much to speak of. I managed to double my subscriber count on YouTube from this time last year, so there's that. But I suppose my biggest accomplishment would be the fact that I actually started writing again. Granted, I didn't exactly churn out any new books. Still, I consider this a pivotal first step towards getting to do that again someday soon. Let's see how 2024 shapes up I guess.

It's been nice getting to share my favorite things and general thoughts about 2023. May our 2024 be filled with even more triumphs.

Thursday 28 December 2023

2023 in Review: Top 10 Movies

There was no shortage of movies to watch in 2023, that's for sure, thanks largely to a packed theatrical slate. But there are still quite a number of them that I have yet to see. For example, I am still slogging my way through Rebel Moon: Part One. Then I still haven't seen Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny which is odd considering it was up there with the rest of my most anticipated movies for the year. The big omission though, at least as far as this Top 10 list is concerned, is Godzilla Minus One as it never got released over here in Nigeria. So with that disclaimer out of the way, here are my Top 10 movies for 2023.

10. The Super Mario Bros. Movie

Nintendo finally decided to take another shot at bringing their beloved mascots to the big screen, some 30 years after their first failed attempt. Thankfully, they'd opted to go the animation route this time around, teaming up with Illumination Studios to help bring the Mushroom Kingdom to life. And what a delight the new film ended up being, with every scene practically crammed with Easter eggs. So while it ultimately left critics divided, the audience certainly ate it up as it easily became the highest-grossing video game adaptation with more than $1.3 billion earned at the global box office.

9. Killers of the Flower Moon

Martin Scorsese brings two of his biggest frequent collaborators together for the first time in Killers of the Flower Moon, a historical drama about the Osage County murders. And while both Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio gave standout performances in the film, it was actually Lily Gladstone that left the biggest impression in my opinion, all but guaranteeing that she'll be getting all the recognition she deserves at the Oscars next year. Expect to see the movie itself continue to rack up even more nominations as we progress further into awards season.

8. Talk to Me

You'll be forgiven for taking one look at Talk to Me and thinking you've seen that before. After all, a group of teenagers messing around with the supernatural for kicks is a well-worn trope in horror films. I mean, what could possibly go wrong, right? But what helps to set Talk to Me apart from the rest of its ilk is its devilishly effective premise and a cast of well-rounded characters with real, emotional stakes. And to think that the movie was made by a pair of YouTubers in their directorial debut. I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for their future work as well as the inevitable sequel.

7. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

James Gunn bids farewell to the MCU with Vol. 3 of Guardians of the Galaxy. And what a last hurrah he has turned in too. At a time when it feels like the MCU is in shambles or otherwise directionless, his movie serves as a bright spot of hope. But more than anything else, the film caps off his trilogy of films (not counting the holiday special) with the perfect sendoff for this particular iteration of the team. There were definitely plenty of tears at the cinema when I saw the movie as it tugged on the heartstrings without being too heavy-handed about it, a balancing act that James Gunn seems to have perfected at this point.

6. Sisu

I'm a sucker for revenge movies especially ones with a protagonist that happens to have a unique set of skills. In the case of Sisu, those skills come in the form of resilience in the face of impossible odds. But to say that the movie draws some inspiration from the likes of John Wick would be putting it lightly. Just like the Baba Yaga, our main character here is a man of few words. He even has a little dog that helps endear him to the audience, much like that other film. Its World War II setting does help set it apart though, and sometimes that's all it takes to get a pass.

5. Air

2023 had a number of notable films about the creation of popular products. We of course had both BlackBerry and Tetris tell those respective products' stories of how they made it to market, and as its title suggests, Air is all about the inception of the popular line of Nike basketball shoes called Air Jordans. The film tells the story of the men who worked to convince a young Michael Jordan to sign an endorsement deal. It's hard to believe that there was ever a time when Nike wasn't at the top of the game, given how popular the brand is today, which is what makes getting to see stories like this so great.

4. Evil Dead Rise

The Evil Dead franchise proved that it was anything but dead this year with the release of Evil Dead Rise. And this latest film more than lives up to its title by taking the scares and gore to a whole new level. Unlike previous entries, which typically take place in a dilapidated cabin in the middle of nowhere, this one is set in a city highrise scheduled for demolition. And that setting is used to great effect throughout the movie. It's funny to think that this was originally scheduled to debut on HBO Max before getting the proper theatrical release that it deserved. And while I didn't get to see it in a theater, I am still happy for those who got to enjoy its many thrills that way.

3. Oppenheimer

2023 gave us one of the strangest pop culture crossovers in the form of Barbenheimer. And while I didn't much care for the first half of that phenomenon, I was very much on board for Oppenheimer. The fact that it was getting released on my birthday only made the prospect of seeing it that much more exciting. And the film ended up delivering the way that only Christopher Nolan tends to do. Many have gone as far as calling this his best work, a designation I'd still reserve for Inception. And despite its 3-hour length, the film would go on to earn north of $900 million in box office receipts which is crazy for what is effectively a biographical epic with no superheroes in it.

2. John Wick: Chapter 4

As far as action film archetypes go, my favorite remains the one where one man singlehandedly dispatches a bunch of bad guys. That is to say that John Wick didn't invent the formula but it has certainly refined it over the years. And just when I thought I'd seen all that the John Wick franchise had to offer in that regard, John Wick: Chapter 4 comes along to raise the bar even further. Clocking in at nearly 3 hours, the film is so packed with balls-to-the-wall action that it almost becomes numbing. Except each setpiece went bigger and louder than the last until it finally culminated in one of the wildest third acts I've seen in recent memory. This is, without a doubt, the best one in the series and one of the best action movies I've seen, period.

1. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

So this year marked the first time I ever awarded a film a perfect 10/10 score. And that film was none other than Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. I am of course a very huge Spider-Man fan and still consider Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 the greatest comic book movie of all time. But dang it doesn't Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse come in a close second. I could proceed to wax lyrical about why I felt the movie was as close to perfection as a superhero film can realistically get. But I already did that in my review, so I'll just say this instead: Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse reminded me of why I love movies as much as I do.

Wednesday 27 December 2023

2023 in Review: Top 10 Songs

According to Spotify and YouTube Music, I managed to rack up a combined total of over 80,000 minutes of music listening in 2023. Granted, most of that was during my daily workouts and 95% of what I listened to were songs from many years ago. It's crazy to think that most of what I listened to back then is now considered oldies by today's standards. Getting older sucks. Anyway, out of the handful of newer songs I did manage to listen to, these are the ones I had on heavy rotation.

10. Everything but the Girl - Nothing Left to Lose

A lot of the songs that get on my radar typically do so through YouTube recommendations. So when a new Everything but the Girl song showed up on my feed earlier this year, I had to do a double take because the duo hadn't really released anything new since the early 2000s. But sure enough, Nothing Left to Lose was pretty legit and it would herald the arrival of a new album to boot.

9. Falling in Reverse - Watch the World Burn

Say what you will about frontman Ronnie Radke and his various antics, but if there is one good thing Falling in Reverse is known for, it is for continually pushing the envelope for production values in their music videos. And Watch the World Burn is their most impressive one yet with a cinematic flair that would put a lot of Hollywood blockbusters to shame.

8. Tyla - Water

I have Instagram Reels to thank for this one as there was a point when I could hardly scroll through 10 videos without hearing Tyla's Water two times or more. And thus it would slowly sink its hooks into my subconscious where it continues to live rent-free even now. But it is the pairing of the South African singer's sultry vocals and the smoothness of its production that ultimately make it a standout song. 

7. Corpse - Code Mistake (ft. Bring Me the Horizon)

The man with the impossible voice took some time away from YouTube this year to join forces with Bring Me the Horizon and the result is anything but a mistake despite what the song's title might lead one to believe. On the contrary, the song immediately sounds like a match made in Heaven (or Hell in this case) as each artist plays to their strengths while still complimenting the other's vocal delivery.

6. Sleep Token - The Summoning

Many of us will forever remember 2023 as the year we discovered Sleep Token. And the song that helped them reach near-mainstream levels of success was The Summoning. Released in January, the track quickly amassed millions of Spotify listens as its blend of metal and soulful R&B proved too irresistible for most. It's the kind of mashup that shouldn't work on paper yet it is executed so flawlessly that you can't help but get lost in its multiple layers and sexy-time vocals.

5. Linkin Park - Lost

Linkin Park released its 20th Anniversary Edition of Meteora this year and as part of the re-release, fans were treated to this lost gem that didn't make the cut for the original album. And wow, just hearing a new song (well, at least new to us) from that era of the band with Chester on vocals was enough to hit me in the feels. I'd always hoped they'd release another nu metal record so I suppose getting this instead is the next best thing.

4. salute & Sammy Virji - Peach VIP

Another artist I discovered this past year is salute, an Austrian DJ currently based in Manchester. His track with Sammy Virji is all kinds of fire, harkening back to the heyday of club bangers with an earworm melody for the ages. This is actually a remixed version of the song, Peach, and while the changes made from the original might appear subtle at best, they still fundamentally improve it enough to be worthy of that VIP designation.

3. Le Castle Vania - Blood Code

Speaking of club bangers, one of the best ones I heard this past year was actually while I was watching John Wick: Chapter 4. I still get chills when I think about that club scene during which Blood Code by Le Castle Vania was blaring through massive theater speakers with face-melting intensity. I don't believe I've ever grinned as hard at a song in a film as I did then. LED Spirals was fire and all but this? This is on a whole nothee level and I'm here for it.

2. Sleep Token - Vore

If anyone had told me at the start of 2023 that I would get completely enamored by a song about lovers eating one another, I would have said you were off your rocker. But here we are and Vore by Sleep Token is quite possibly the most intensely beautiful song I've heard in ages. It is easily the best song on their Take Me Back to Eden album and one I've had on near-constant repeat for the better part of the year.

1. Disclosure - Looking for Love

Any year that Disclosure releases a new record is bound to be a great one. So when the duo announced the imminent release of their fourth album, Alchemy, I knew I was in for a treat. And the album hits the ground running with the stunning opening track, Looking for Love. The production of the song is just as exuberant as one would expect from the brothers, but it is actually the vocoded vocal that lends it that signature throwback feel, effectively setting the stage for what was overall an infectious and very back-to-basics record.

Tuesday 26 December 2023

2023 in Review: Top 10 TV Shows

Even though the golden age of television may be long past us by now, there were still quite a number of noteworthy TV shows in 2023 for us to enjoy. From superhero fare to reimagined takes on classic tales, it seemed there was indeed something for every type of viewer. There were also several outright duds, none of which will be making it onto this list, thankfully. So without further ado, here are my Top 10 TV shows that aired in 2023.

10. The Mandalorian Season 3

After topping my list of favorite TV shows in 2020, the third season of The Mandalorian drops all the way down to number 10 this year. This is mainly due to a noticeable dip in the quality of its storytelling, as I found myself questioning how some of it managed to slip past quality control. I am still trying to recover from the abject stupidity of that Jack Black and Lizzo episode. But despite some really low lows, and its title character taking the back seat for much of the season, the show as a whole still managed to deliver the goods, at least in the areas of action and the continued development of the relationship between its two leads.

9. One Piece

Netflix has a pretty spotty track record when it comes to its anime adaptations. For every Alice in Borderland, it seems there are at least a few Death Notes and Cowboy Bebops. This was primarily why I didn't have high expectations for One Piece. Except I was immediately sucked into the show by its exceptional characterization and world-building. And even though I had minimal familiarity with the anime or the manga it is based upon, I was still captivated by how well those stories have translated into the show. So here's hoping they can keep the ball rolling for several more seasons to come.

8. Loki Season 2

The MCU might feel like it is in shambles right now, especially after the disastrous performance of The Marvels and the wet fart that was Secret Invasion. But you won't catch many people throwing any of that shade at Loki, a show that remains a bright spot for the struggling franchise. And even though its second season didn't quite set up Kang the Konqueror as the big bad of the Multiverse Saga like many of us had imagined it would, it still tied off enough loose threads from the first to be considered a satisfying conclusion to the show and this particular iteration of its title character as a whole.

7. Invincible Season 2

We recently got the first half of Invincible Season 2 after what had felt like an agonizing two-year break. But it was certainly worth the wait as the show picks up effortlessly from where it had left off, in the aftermath of the showdown between father and son. The show continues to prove that there is still plenty of juice left in the superhero genre, subverting many of its well-worn tropes with its rich, nuanced characterization, without sacrificing any of the over-the-top violence that defined the first season. And while those first four episodes are not enough to judge the quality of the season as a whole, I would still say that it is off to a very strong start.

6. Gen V

Speaking of over-the-top violence, things didn't really get any more bloody and violent in 2023 than in Gen V, a spinoff of The Boys, a show that was itself known for pushing the boundaries. And much like that other show, this one explores the seedy underbelly of a world where superheroes are treated like commodities. Except this time around, we see events unfold through the perspective of a diverse cast of young superheroes in training as they struggle to come to terms with the realities of the world they've been born into and the abilities they've been given.

5. Blue Eye Samurai

Just when I thought I'd seen all that 2023 had to offer, Netflix premiered a new animated show called Blue Eye Samurai. And based off of the incredible word of mouth it was getting after its debut, I was eventually compelled to check it out. The first thing that struck me was the incredible art style that successfully recreates the look and feel of traditional Japanese animation while using modern rendering techniques. But it was in fact its engaging narrative and its cast of memorable characters that actually kept me watching episode after episode, right up to an explosive finale that paves the way for what is sure to be an incredible multi-season run. 

4. Fargo Season 5

One would expect that a show like Fargo would be running on fumes by its fifth season. But the anthology series just keeps delivering the goods in what is already shaping up to be one of its best seasons yet. With a new cast that includes the incredible Juno Temple in the lead, the new season weaves one hell of a narrative filled with mystery and enough suspense to keep everyone engaged. The fact that it isn't afraid to take jabs at people on both sides of the political divide while still tackling delicate issues like domestic abuse just further adds to its overall appeal. This is what top-tier television looks like in 2023.

3. Beef

Steven Yeun and Ali Wong butt heads in the comedy-drama, Beef. As its title suggests, the show is about the ensuing feud between two strangers after an incident of road rage sets them on an insatiable quest for revenge. This was yet another show that was preceded by a lot of positive word of mouth in the lead-up to its release. Still, I was caught off guard by just how bingeable it turned out to be. I guess it is down to its roughly 30-minute episodes, which is the perfect length for falling into that unbreakable loop of telling yourself you can squeeze in one more episode before bedtime, then suddenly discovering 3 hours later that the time is 2 in the morning and you've become hopelessly hooked by the narrative.

2. Silo

Apple TV+ is really out to steal some of Netflix's thunder. They've in fact become one of my favorite places to watch top-shelf science fiction shows. And things don't really get more top-shelf than Silo, an adaptation of a series of books by self-published writer, Hugh Howey. I still remember the first time I read those books back in 2012 and learning that rights to an adaptation had been secured by Ridley Scott's team. As a fan of the books and the author behind them, I was eager to see how well it would translate into what eventually became a serialized TV format. And the folks at Apple have done a very commendable job, retaining all of the things that made those books so popular among genre fans, to begin with.

1. The Last of Us

It looks like video game adaptations might have finally begun to hit their stride in 2023. And nowhere is this more evident than in the HBO show, The Last of Us. No other video game has translated so flawlessly into another storytelling medium in my opinion. Then again, this should be expected given how narrative-focused the game was and the pedigree of the showrunners behind it. This is as faithful as any adaptation that fans of the game could've hoped for, and something that serves as a viable entry point into the story of Joel and Ellie for non-gamers as well. It remains to be seen just how well Season 2 would fare, given how divisive that portion of the game's narrative had proven with fans. But as things currently stand, The Last of Us is easily the greatest video game adaptation I've seen.

Monday 25 December 2023

2023 in Review: Top 10 Games

Merry Christmas everyone. 2023 is almost over which means it is time for yet another season of my Year in Review series of posts. So for the rest of this week, I'll be highlighting my favorite movies, TV shows, and the like, as well as my general thoughts on the year as a whole. And much like recent years, I am kicking things off with my favorite video games released within the calendar year.

The video game industry definitely had a lot of ups and downs in 2023, especially when you factor in all the widespread layoffs, leaks, and controversies. But in terms of the actual games themselves, it was certainly one of the stronger ones we've gotten in recent memory. As usual, I didn't get around to playing nearly enough of them, so expect to see more than a few glaring omissions on my list. But out of all the ones I did get to play, these are the ones I consider my Top 10.

10. Super Mario RPG

We all have certain gaps in our gaming histories. For me, I never got to play Super Mario RPG back when it was originally released. At least not on original hardware. This is why I was very excited when a remake was announced earlier this year. And after playing through the game recently, I can finally see why it is held with such high esteem by fans. It boasts an engaging turn-based battle system as well as some clever writing and a cast of colorful characters that is as fresh today as it must have been back then. Wish I could say the same thing about its platforming sections though, the one frustrating aspect of the game that hasn't aged all that well, thus preventing it from placing higher on this list.

9. Cocoon

I'll always have a soft spot for bite-sized adventure games with a heavy emphasis on environmental puzzles, especially ones that sport a unique visual style or gimmick. And Cocoon indeed manages to tick all those boxes which shouldn't be surprising since it is coming from a former Playdead designer who'd worked on Limbo and Inside. Its world-hopping gameplay mechanic never ceased to amaze me throughout my playthrough and the puzzles built around this were almost always intuitive enough to feel satisfying to solve.

8. Pikmin 4

I didn't own a GameCube growing up so I never did get to see what the fuss was about those early Pikmin games. I've never really been a fan of strategy games in any case but something about Pikmin 3 Deluxe on the Nintendo Switch worked to win me over. So I was happy to jump into Pikmin 4 the first chance I got. And the new game definitely didn't disappoint as it oozed with a level of charm you can only find in a Nintendo game. The addition of new Pikmins and Oatchi helped to keep things feeling fresh but it was the impressive visuals and its tried-and-tested gameplay loop that left me eager to explore each new environment I found myself in.

7. Street Fighter 6

The Street Fighter series got a much-needed facelift this past year in the form of Street Fighter 6. And while I never did get into Street Fighter V the way I got into past entries, this one immediately piqued my interest with everything it was bringing to the table. The biggest addition of course comes through the World Tour, a single-player, story-focused mode that would have you free-roaming the streets of Metro City with your custom-created character, as you learn the ropes and fight your way to the very top of the rankings. But it is ultimately its refined combat and smooth gameplay that make Streer Fighter 6 a more-than-worthy addition to the popular fighting game franchise.

6. Sea of Stars

I still hold firm to the belief that the SNES is the greatest game console ever made, an opinion that was inspired by its vast library of stellar games. And you only need to take one look at Sea of Stars to tell where it draws inspiration from. Games like Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana immediately come to mind but it is a testament to the skills of the developers at Sabotage Studios that their game still finds ways to improve upon the formula already perfected by those aforementioned classics. Its beautiful pixel art style is matched only by a soundtrack that is evocative of the very best SNES-era RPGs but we really can't expect any less from the same guys that gave us The Messenger, can we?

5. Metroid Prime Remastered

Another GameCube game I'd completely missed out on was Metroid Prime. Originally released in 2002, the game is renowned for reinventing the 2D Metroid series as a first-person action-adventure title. It was very ambitious for its time and it found its way onto the Nintendo Switch earlier this year through a brand-new remaster. But calling the new game a remaster almost feels like underselling it as it currently boasts some of the most impressive visuals to ever grace the hybrid console. And with its modernized controls, you almost have a game that could very well rub shoulders with the latest and the greatest that the genre has to offer.

4. Resident Evil 4

And while we are still on the topic of games that originally debuted on the GameCube, Resident Evil 4 is one that has graced nearly every console ever since it first reinvented the survival horror series back in 2004. But never has it looked or played so great as it does in the ground-up remake it received in 2023. Adopting a darker tone more in line with other recent RE remakes, the new game took what was already considered a groundbreaking overhaul by most and refined it even further, resulting in the quintessential way to play the highly beloved classic.

3. Super Mario Bros. Wonder

In a year that was already full of pleasant surprises, one of my fondest ones was Super Mario Bros. Wonder. The game takes Mario and friends back to their 2D platforming roots, ditching the stale art style of the recent New Super Mario Bros. games for one that can only be described as vibrant and endlessly expressive. But more importantly, the game features the kind of creativity and pinpoint perfect platforming that helped the series grow into what it is today. It quickly became one of my favorite Super Mario games of all time, joining the ranks of Super Mario World on the SNES.

2. Hogwarts Legacy

Hogwarts Legacy was easily one of the most controversial games of 2023. But regardless of where you fall on the J.K. Rowling debate, I've always held on to the notion that we need to separate the art from the artist. And as far as art is concerned, Hogwarts Legacy is the most faithful recreation of the Wizarding World we've gotten in video game form to date. So being the massive Potterhead that I am, I was elated for a chance to experience this massive homage to what was effectively a cornerstone of my childhood. And I wasn't alone either because the game would eventually go on to become the highest-selling game of the year, showing just how alive and hungry for more Harry Potter the fandom remains till this very day.

1. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

Shocking, I know. But no other game released in 2023 even comes close to the mammoth greatness that is The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. Not only was it my most hotly-anticipated game for three years straight, but it is also the one I've logged the most amount of hours in since Animal Crossing: New Horizons took over much of my life in 2020. And despite my 200+ hours with the game, it still feels like there's tons left for me to see and do. The game builds upon everything introduced in Breath of the Wild with new abilities, improved dungeons, and vast areas to adventure in. And while I feel it doesn't exactly recapture the magic of exploring this version of Hyrule for the first time, it still goes above and beyond as a more-than-worthy extension to what was an already-brilliant game.

Friday 22 December 2023

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (Movie Review)

After a decades-worth of storytelling spread across fifteen movies of varying quality, the DCEU comes to an unceremonious end with the release of Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. And what a wild ride it has been, boasting its fair share of highs and lows. So it was indeed a bittersweet affair heading into the new Aquaman, even as I wondered how it could possibly wrap up the entire franchise in any meaningful way. But as I quickly discovered while watching the film, those aspirations were never on the table to begin with, as evidenced by its business-as-usual approach to storytelling. So I guess the real question then is whether or not the film is still worth seeing even with the knowledge that we've arrived at the end of the road.

Serving as a direct sequel to 2018's Aquaman, the movie finds its titular hero adjusting to life as the ruler of the underwater kingdom of Atlantis. He must also pull double duty as a new dad, having started a family with love interest Mera since the events of the first film. Meanwhile, his archnemisis Black Manta is still hellbent on getting revenge, a pursuit that would bring him into possession of an ancient artefact that imbues him with superhuman strength. In order to stop him, Aquaman must seek help from unexpected places or risk failing to prevent a global catastrophe that would threaten all surface dwellers and Atlanteans alike.

It didn't take me long into Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom before I could tell that there was something clearly wrong with the movie. Perhaps it was its derivative story that first gave it away, as it borrows quite a number of plot points and story elements from the likes of Lord of the Rings but never quite matches the brilliance of their execution. Or maybe it was the stilted dialogue that often had the cast sounding like actors in an amateur high school play. Or the way the film relies heavily on exposition dumps, with characters even offering running commentary on actions that should be otherwise apparent to the audience, almost in an effort to ensure understanding amidst all the chaos.

And there was indeed a lot of chaos involved, as the film kept piling on setpiece after setpiece. It didn't exactly help that some of the effects bringing those action scenes to life were of the questionable sort, with varying degrees of quality in its creature design and the sea of CGI they inhabit. Even the licensed music that accompanied some of those scenes sometimes felt tacked on, barely serving to elevate what was going on onscreen and instead acting as a distraction. All these things ultimately coalesce to create a movie that often feels sloppy and unfinished. 

But somehow, as though through some ancient magic and wizardry conjured up by director James Wan, the whole thing still manages to work, or at least it never truly collapses under the weight of its hodgepodge storyline and wooden deliveries. This is largely due to the fact that the movie fully embraces its own zaniness, much like the first one did. It also never tilts completely into the realm of silliness either, ala Thor: Love and Thunder. I found myself laughing with the movie as much as I was laughing at it, and it was only then that I had to concede that I was indeed enjoying myself.

It is as though the filmmakers knew all the things that helped propel the first movie to become the DCEU's first and only billion-dollar grosser and they doubled down on all of it. It fully embraces the fantastical side of the DC Comics it is based upon, depicting underwater cities and desert kingdoms populated by all manner of creatures, all of which were pleasing to see brought to life on the big screen. The action was also some of the best I've seen in the DCEU in a long time, stretching the limits of plausibility while giving more than enough eye candy to satisfy action junkies. 

I must of course acknowledge the fact that some of the things I just mentioned could very well be considered turnoffs by some. After all, not everyone I spoke to about that first film appreciated its more lighthearted take on the superhero genre or the little visual flourishes and gags that helped flesh out its underwater kingdom. This is to say that anyone expecting something less campy might be disappointed to see the movie fully lean into the camp. But if you liked what you got in the first film and are content with getting more of the same, then there is plenty to love about Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom.

Looking back on the DCEU as a whole, it is clear that the franchise lacked any kind of cohesive vision tying together its cinematic universe, or that whatever grand plans or ideas that fueled early entries like Man of Steel and Batman v Superman were simply never given any room to grow or flourish. And that, in itself, is the true tragedy of the entire endeavor, that sense of loss at the thought of what could have been. But as far as final entries go, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom at least serves as a worthwhile last hurrah that I can easily recommend to fans of the first film and anyone looking for some effects-heavy entertainment over the holidays.

Friday 10 November 2023

The Marvels (Movie Review)

As the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues its expansion, one would be forgiven for having lost track of all the various movies and Disney+ shows that feed into its overall narrative. Long gone is the luster that once drove fans to devour each new entry, especially in the wake of the complete dumpster fire that was Secret Invasion. And it is in this environment that we now welcome The Marvels, a movie that serves not only as a sequel to 2019's Captain Marvel but as a follow-up to both WandaVision and Ms. Marvel as well. But does the new film signal a return to simpler times or has the franchise simply grown too big for its own good?

The film has Brie Larson reprising her role as Carol Danvers, aka. Captain Marvel, except this time around, she is joined by WandaVision's Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) and Ms.Marvel herself, Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani). The three women are brought together after a freak accident causes them to switch places whenever they use their powers. Meanwhile, the Kree are trying to restore their home planet, Hala, by siphoning resources from others just like it. And so our three heroes must go up against their leader, Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton) before she renders those other worlds inhospitable in the process.

Heading into The Marvels, I was forced to keep my expectations about as low as they could realistically get. This was mainly due to news surrounding its release, with the film getting subjected to multiple release date changes as it underwent extensive reshoots amidst what was clearly a troubled production. So I'd hoped that Marvel Studios would be able to salvage something worthwhile out of all of it, or at least something worth the price of admission. But as I quickly found out during the movie, hopes and wishful thinking can only get you so far.

Let me just start by saying that there are definitely things to admire about The Marvels. The film is heavy on action with more than enough set pieces peppered throughout its relatively brisk runtime. So those going into the movie solely for eye candy will get served plenty of it. It also marks the big-screen debut of Ms. Marvel and she was the clear standout amongst our trio of leads, bringing much of the same charm and charisma she was known for in her Disney+ show. Then the film has a very playful tone that some might find endearing especially if you enjoyed the humor in the two most recent Thor movies.

It is just a shame that the narrative tying all of it together comes across as a jumbled mess of ideas. The story felt disjointed in the worst way possible, relying on too many flashbacks and exposition dumps to fill in crucial aspects of its plot. The worst part is a lot of the material that got relegated to those flashbacks could've made for a very compelling narrative in its own right. I can't get into specifics without getting into spoilers but I was ultimately disappointed with how the filmmakers had chosen to present the story. A lot of it is most likely a result of those extensive reshoots as it becomes obvious a lot of the story must have gotten reshaped and dumbed down in an attempt to make the film appeal to the broadest demographic possible.

Tonally, the film was all over the place with some of its more heartfelt moments getting diluted by jokes and visual gags that fail to land. The film is also inconsistent with the way it depicts its heroes switching places, failing to respect its own rules in more than a few instances. The same can be said of the way it handles our heroes' power levels as I simply found it too hard of a pill to swallow that a hero of Captain Marvel's stature couldn't singlehandedly take down the villain. Then there is its jumbled-up script once again, which prevents its characters from getting anywhere near enough character development, especially the main villain, who is as one-note and one-dimensional as they come. All these things ultimately add up to make what could have been fun and decent come across as lame and cringe-inducing.

The fact that The Marvels is not the worst thing to come out of the MCU recently speaks volumes about just how dire a state the entire franchise is in. The movie serves as yet another example of why the current quantity-over-quality approach being employed at Disney and Marvel Studios is neither favorable nor sustainable in the long run. The good news is both Bob Iger and Kevin Feige have acknowledged the need for greater quality control in all current and future projects. So hopefully this is the last of these watered-down, obligatory entries into the MCU that fans would have to endure going forward.

Friday 27 October 2023

Five Nights at Freddy's (Movie Review)

2023 has been a great year for video game adaptations. We've had the phenomenal The Last of Us on HBO Max, which was not only faithful to its source material but also managed to translate flawlessly into a serialized TV format. Then of course we also got The Super Mario Bros. Movie, a film that was an instant hit with fans, going on to gross more than a billion dollars at the worldwide box office. And now it seems that it is time for fans of Five Nights at Freddy's to get in on the action as the familiar band of killer animatronics makes the jump onto the big and small screen. But does the film capture that sense of dread the games are known for or does it instead bring back the dreaded video game movie curse?

The film centers upon Mike Schmidt, a troubled young man who lands a job as a nighttime security guard at an abandoned family entertainment center called Freddy Fazbear's Pizza. Unable to find a babysitter for his younger sister one night, he decides to bring her along with him to spend the night there. But it doesn't take long into his shifts before he realizes that its empty rooms and hallways are haunted after midnight by its eponymous animatronic mascot, along with three others just like it. Now he must do whatever he can to survive long enough to cash his paycheck.

The Five Nights at Freddy's video games are renowned not only for their effective jump scares but for their lore-filled stories as well. And all that is presented to the player in a stripped-down presentation with very minimal setup or exposition. All you need to know is that you are a night guard at a defunct pizzeria who needs to fend off a group of killer animatronics in order to survive five nights as the title suggested. And while I've never actually played any of the games myself, I've still, like many others, watched enough Let's Plays on YouTube to understand what the noise is about.

So heading into this long-awaited movie adaptation, I expected to see the same barebones approach to horror but with perhaps some more character development and buildup to better fill out the film's overall runtime. But in its quest to give our main characters some backstory, the movie gets bogged down in the kind of melodrama that makes its leads come across as dull and uncharismatic. It didn't exactly help that a lot of its dialogue felt forced and unnatural, serving largely to telegraph character intentions or foreshadow future events.

All that can be forgiven of course, if the movie was at least self-aware enough to lean into its inherent cheesiness. This was in fact what had helped elevate Willy's Wonderland, another recent movie that was inspired by the Five Nights at Freddy's video games. But here we instead get a self-serious tone that often felt at odds with the ridiculousness of its onscreen action. And without the natural charms and star power of an actor like Nicolas Cage to help bridge that gap, it becomes increasingly difficult to care about any of it.

This was never a problem in the video games mind you, mainly because the main character was there solely to serve as a surrogate for the player. This was why they worked so well in Let's Plays videos, as it allowed the player's reactions to the horrors it throws at them to come across to viewers in their purest form. And the film is sadly devoid of all the personality that the likes of PewDiePie and CoryxKenshin brought to those Let's Plays.

This is not to say that the movie is without some fun moments. It was nice seeing Cory make a cameo as a taxi driver, complete with jump scares that were reminiscent of his own Let's Plays of the game. It is just that the film takes too long before anything remotely interesting happens. And even when the killings begin, they are confined by the limitations of its low-budget production and a PG-13 rating.

Five Nights at Freddy's is about as dull as a video game adaptation can get without outright putting viewers to sleep. It completely squanders a simple yet interesting premise by sticking too closely to horror film conventions. And while it does faithfully recreate the various locations from the video games, as well as the animatronics that inhabit them, it still fails to convey their sense of dread or impending doom, nor does it successfully tap into the rich lore that continues to spark discourse among fans, at least not in any meaningful way.

Friday 20 October 2023

Killers of the Flower Moon (Movie Review)

As we enter into awards season, one can expect a good helping of Oscar-bait movies to find their way into cinemas. So while we've already had films like Oppenheimer and Air throwing their hats into the ring, most of the expected heavy hitters are only now starting to reveal themselves. And they don't really get much heavier than Killers of the Flower Moon, Martin Scorsese's $200 million epic drama. But does the film put all that money to good use or is it simply overlong and overbudgeted?

Based on the book of the same name, the film tells the story of the true-life events that came to be known as the Osage murders. It features an acting ensemble that includes Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro. The former plays a man returning home from the war to help his uncle in the Osage Nation, a reserve largely owned and controlled by wealthy Native Americans. But after he marries into one such family at the behest of his uncle, he is soon pushed to go to any lengths to help secure the family inheritance.

The first I'd heard of Killers of the Flower Moon was back when it was still being shopped around by Martin Scorsese. It immediately drew attention due to its $200 million price tag, an amount that was eventually raised when distribution rights were picked up by Apple TV+. But rather than relegate the film to their streaming platform, the company has chosen to give it a full theatrical release. This would no doubt go a long way in helping it recoup some of that cost as well as boosting its prospects for consideration at the various film awards.

As for whether or not any of that money is on display during the movie itself, I'd say that it certainly feels just as epic and sprawling as it had set out to be. The film is beautifully shot as one would expect from a director of the caliber of Martin Scorsese. But unlike his previous film, The Irishman, which had made extensive use of CGI to de-age its main actors, this one has a harder time justifying its budget, especially in the wake of a film like The Creator which was several times more ambitious and cost half as much to make.

This means that most of its production cost must have gone towards salaries for its stellar acting ensemble. Both Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro give what could be considered career-best performances but it was actually Lily Gladstone that serves as the film's emotional core. Her performance was restrained and yet powerful, evoking all the pain and suffering her character was made to go through. So I'll definitely be expecting to hear her name get called out among the nominees at next year's Oscars, along with the two other headliners. The fact that both Jesse Plemons and Brendan Fraser don't even make an appearance until well into the movie's runtime just shows just how stacked the cast is.

Speaking of runtime, you do start to feel the film's overall length at nearly three and a half hours, especially during the second act when things began to drag a bit. But it is a testament to the tightly-written script that I was kept engaged for most of the movie regardless. It did sort of just fizzle out at the end though, right where one would expect a more pronounced climax and resolution, but I'll put that down to it being beholden to presenting the facts as close to the way they had happened in real life as it could, as opposed to something more cinematic or sensational.

And that is another area where I feel the movie might alienate more casual viewers, in the way that it presents some of its facts with very little context, almost as though it expects that the viewer is already well versed in its subject matter. It also bears mentioning that the film might be a little too hard to stomach for some due to the deplorable nature of the killings alluded to by its title, as it never shies away from depicting each one in cold and graphic ways.

Killers of the Flower Moon is as rewarding as it is challenging to watch. It forgoes traditional payoffs in favor of an examination of the evils people are capable of in their greedy pursuits. The fact that it is still able to pause long enough to allow the viewer to appreciate moments of beauty amidst all of its horrors helps keep it grounded and well out of the realm of being considered exploitative. But its length and dire subject matter might sadly keep it out of many people's comfort zones.

Saturday 30 September 2023

The Creator (Movie Review)

With the summer movie season now in our rearview mirrors, moviegoers are no doubt on the lookout for the next big thing. This is especially true following recent delays from the likes of Kraven the Hunter and Dune: Part Two, brought on by the combined weight of the writers' and actors' strikes. And like a beacon of hope amidst the ongoing drought, Gareth Edwards steps in with his latest science fiction offering. But does the movie compare favorably with his previous outings or does it perhaps fall short of its lofty ambitions?

In The Creator, humankind is once again at war with AI-powered machines. But before you roll your eyes and declare this yet another Terminator ripoff, at least consider that it attempts to throw a few twists into the mix of its well-worn formula. John David Washington plays Joshua Taylor, a former special forces agent who is brought back for a mission to destroy a war-ending weapon created by the machines. But when that weapon turns out to be a humanlike girl, he finds himself torn between carrying out his directive or protecting her from those who would like to see her and her kind made extinct.

As simple as its premise appears at first glance, The Creator is a film that explores some very interesting ideas. Chief among them is the question of whether or not mankind could truly ever hope to co-exist with another intelligent species, even one of its own making. Its high-concept depiction of AI is one where robots are given almost humanlike qualities, making their integration into certain aspects of society all the more compelling, at least from a visual standpoint.

And that is one area where the movie truly excels, in its production values. Its near-future world is brought to life through some truly impressive set designs and special effects. And with a reported budget of around $80 million, it immediately puts to shame other films with three times that amount and nothing to show for it. The various robots at the heart of its narrative were always captivating to look at, especially how they had taken on a diverse range of human qualities.

Some of it didn't exactly make much practical sense though, like how they'd adopted our need for clothes or even the way we walk or need to go to bed at night. A good chunk of it reminded me of the robots in the video game, Stray, except those had a strong narrative reason for adopting our ways while these seemed mostly that way for aesthetic reasons. Either way, they added to a lot of the film's personality, along with the futuristic cities and beautiful countrysides they reside in.

I'd be remiss if I didn't also acknowledge how the movie's visuals were complimented by yet another stellar score from Hans Zimmer as well as some clever use of licensed music. I immediately cracked a smile when Radiohead's "Everything in its Right Place" started to play as the Kid A opener and its underlying themes of existential dread perfectly mirror the journey our two leads are on.

Speaking of leads, John David Washington was more than serviceable in the role of the reluctant father figure. It was also nice seeing Ken Watanabe in another Gareth Edwards production following their work together in Godzilla (2014). The director also proves once again why he is a force to be reckoned with in the science fiction realm, as much like Rogue One, his new film is helped by cool, new takes on preexisting concepts. But the area where I think the film suffers a bit is in its writing.

There were a number of plot contrivances as quite a few character actions seemed beholden to the demands of the plot rather than any organic reasoning on the characters' parts. The final act in particular was plagued by too many of such instances for my liking, resulting in a manufactured and somewhat unsatisfying ending. And while that in itself isn't enough to truly mar the overall package, I still feel it ends up preventing it from achieving true greatness.

The Creator is the exact type of film that the science fiction genre needs more of. It is an original IP that boasts an intriguing depiction of our future driven by a strong, creative vision. Some of it did tend to feel derivative of other works in the genre though, and for all of its gorgeous visuals and interesting concepts, it was still let down by a script that felt lacking in places. That said, the film should still satisfy genre fans looking for their next sci-fi fix, at least until Dune: Part Two resurfaces next spring.

Friday 18 August 2023

Blue Beetle (Movie Review)

As the DCEU prepares to end its run with Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom later this year, one might rightfully wonder if it is even worth investing in yet another last-minute entry. But yet here we are with Blue Beetle, a comparatively lesser-known character from the DC pantheon of superheroes. Originally scheduled to make its debut on HBO Max, the movie has been cleverly positioned by James Gunn as the first and possibly only character to make the jump from the older cinematic universe into the rebooted one. But does the new film give any meaningful glimpse at what we can expect from the DCU or was it merely a marketing ploy to get some butts in seats?

The film stars Xolo MaridueƱa as Jaime Reyes, a young man who inadvertently gets hold of an ancient alien artifact called the Scarab. This would end up transforming him into the titular Blue Beetle, an androidlike being that is highly skilled in combat and capable of a number of superhuman feats. But when the original finders of the Scarab come knocking, seeking to weaponize his newfound abilities and profit off of them, Jaime will have to do whatever it takes to ensure that the other members of his close-knit family don't wound up as collateral damage.

Heading into Blue Beetle, my expectations were about as low as they could get. Not only was the movie coming in the wake of a number of high-profile DC flops, but the overall quality of the films in the DCEU had been hit or miss as well. The marketing leading up to its release had also done nothing to get me on board. For all intents and purposes, the film looked like yet another generic superhero origin story with little to offer beyond hitting an arbitrary diversity quota. And while there is nothing wrong with studios endeavoring to have more diversity in their films, I still feel the films themselves and the stories they tell need to be able to stand on their own in terms of providing entertainment value.

And in terms of pure entertainment value, Blue Beetle ranks on the lower end of the scale. Right off the bat, we are introduced to a pair of villains that are about as cookie-cutter as they come. Susan Sarandon in particular comes across as villainous for the sake of being villainous with hardly any nuances to her performance. They might as well have given her a mustache to twirl around with the way that the character was written and portrayed. The same can be said for most of the cast members. Xolo was adequate in the role of Jaime and George Lopez was about as obnoxious as I felt he was in the trailers. He did manage to garner the most laughs from the crowd in my screening, so your mileage may vary.

The story in the movie itself is what I would refer to as aggressively okay. It ticks all the boxes one would expect from a superhero origin story but doesn't attempt to do much more than that. It offers very little in the way of surprises and a lot of its plot points were heavily telegraphed in overtly obvious ways. Perhaps some of this can be linked to its adherence to the source material but since I have never read the actual comic books the movie is based upon, I can only speculate. What I know for sure is that for someone who was not a preexisting fan, I came out of the movie feeling just as indifferent as I was going in.

There is still some fun to be had in Blue Beetle, of course, don't get me wrong. It has the right amount of set-piece moments and laughs to keep most people engaged. But the jokes that landed are few and far between and the action, while largely serviceable, fails to reach the heights of some of its predecessors or offer anything we haven't already seen before. The only thing that truly attempts to help the movie stand out was a late revelation made regarding the past of one of its two main antagonists. Unfortunately, this comes a bit too late into the movie and my brain had all but already checked out by that point.

Blue Beetle is a superhero origin story that barely manages to get off the ground. That it exists in a very strange middle ground between cinematic universes only further adds to the confusion regarding its wider significance. Whether or not we see any more of this iteration of the character would ultimately depend on how well it performs over the course of its theatrical run. But I honestly think it should have stayed as the direct-to-streaming movie it was originally intended to be as the final product simply does not do nearly enough to justify the price of admission.